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 Fortnightly Column by By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami

C3S PaperNo. F002 /2015


If the visit of the American President Barack Obama to India was all that “superficial” and “symbolic”, why would the President of China, Xi Jinping want to break all protocol and meet the visiting Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj? The answer to this lies in what transpired between Washington and New Delhi during the time of Obama was in the country on the occasion of Republic Day. It is not as if the Chinese are rattled in what transpired during the three days; but surely the leadership in Beijing must be apprehensive in what has come about between the two democracies—and three if one were to throw in Japan as well.

The fine tuning of the civilian nuclear deal may not have raised eyebrows as much as what India and the United States have had to say—and rather bluntly so once more—about a vision for the Asia Pacific. Going beyond the customary “concern” for rising tensions due to maritime disputes, India and the United States not only “affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security” but also called for “ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”.

The specific reference to the South China Sea by Washington and New Delhi must have irked Beijing for it has been trying to throw its military muscle in an area that has several claimants and those nations like India who are exercising their right to navigate those waters for strategic and economic reasons. Countries like Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines—three of the six claimants to the Spratlys—have been clearly on the edge in recent months as China has been making tall claims of exclusivity of the sea and air space. Malaysia and Brunei are the other actors involved in the Spratlys dispute.

The reference to South China Sea in the Joint Statement is a pointed reminder to China that while the United States and India may not be involved in any territorial claims in that part of the world, their broader interests cannot be determined by Beijing. India and the United States, along with Japan, play a legitimate role in the Asia Pacific and have a right to be present in the South China Sea. The Obama visit to India could not have sent this message any more  clearer.

Having grabbed the Paracels from South Vietnam in 1974—with the then North Vietnam in a divided country meekly looking on—China perhaps thought that Spratlys could be a re-run of the mid 1970s, but has only seen the hardening of stance of the small nations staking also a claim to those string of islands, islets and coral reefs that are to be sitting on top of huge oil and natural gas reserves. To the chagrin of many China has not only started militarily fortifying areas under its current control but also preparing for oil drilling operations, a move that has brought about similar response by contested nations, especially Vietnam and Taiwan.

China is looking at the recent upswing in India-United States-Japan relations with considerable unease; but much of what is transpiring in this triangular relationship has very much to do with China’s bilateral and regional posturing. The historical political and territorial disputes with Japan aside, Beijing has been showing off its military might in the East China Seas leading to a resurgence of right wing sentiments in Japan.

And it goes without much saying that both Japan and the United States want to use the new and emerging scenario in the Indian Ocean to the best of their common strategic vision for the Asia Pacific. The change of government in Sri Lanka and the rapidly changing political landscape in Myanmar have sent signals that these two countries might not want to be economically dominated by China for military/strategic reasons.

While the Chinese President and other leaders and officials in that country might want to be briefed first hand on President Obama’s visit, it is an occasion for the visiting Indian External Affairs Minister to politiely but firmly remind her hosts that it takes two to tango: China cannot talk of taking bilateral relations forward and yet at the same time indulge in cross border violations and repeatedly claiming large swaths of Indian territory including the state of Arunachal Pradesh as its own.

Inviting China to invest in India is one thing; but the Modi government must make it clear that normalization is a two way street and one that involves a compendium of factors that includes looking at bilateral relations in a larger global framework. That is hopefully what the Indian Prime Minister will be taking with him when he visits China later this year.

There is no reason to doubt that Prime Minister Modi is seeking a robust and strong relationship with both the United States and Japan. To make this point clear  Modi has appointed a first rate diplomat as his Foreign Secretary—Mr. Jaishankar is not only a China hand , but has also served in Japan and has been instrumental in giving shape to the emerging equations between Washington and New Delhi in the last eight months as the top diplomat in that country.

(A Columnist with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami has been a senior journalist with The Hindu in Chennai, Singapore and Washington and currently Heads the Departments of Journalism and Mass Communications and International Relations at SRM University, Chennai and can be reached at . Views expressed here are personal.)

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